USA Today Bestselling Authors Maggie Ryan and Alta Hensley join forces again to bring you the third novel in this action-packed, romantic suspense trilogy full of bad boys and the women who love them.
Anson Steele, along with his two brothers and father, lives by one code: Help all in need. Even if it means saving those who walk among the most sinister criminals in the world. Known as The Black Stallions, their mission is simple - provide rescue and safety to the innocents drawn into the evil depths of the underground.
Natalia Alvarez has been sold to the leader of one of
Argentinian's largest drug cartels at an underground human auction. Being sold to the highest bidder, she is now nothing more than a possession of Juan Montez and hidden away deep within the walls of his South American compound.
Anson Steele has been on the hunt for Natalia since the day he first saw her at the auction and helplessly had to watch her while not being able to do a thing about it. But he has made it is
life's mission to find this woman and pull her out of the depths of hell at whatever cost. She will be his save one way or another.
With the backdrop of the mission being the unforgiving jungles and the dangerous streets of Argentina, and escaping a foreign country near impossible, is Natalia doomed to be locked away forever?
While fighting against a powerful drug cartel and their ruthless leader, will Anson Steele be able to rescue Natalia before it is too late? Will they both be able to find refuse in The Black Stallion Ranch and put this awful nightmare behind them?
Publisher's Note: This book contains graphic sex and BDSM elements.
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Eyes the color of the ocean locked onto ones far darker and far more dangerous. The only thing stirring was the flicking tongue of the pit viper whose movement had caught Anson's attention, freezing him in place. While most snakes would prefer to slither away from human contact, this particular species was known for its aggressiveness, striking with very little provocation. Judging the distance, Anson wished he'd caught sight of the danger before he'd crawled those last few inches. Though extremely swift, the reptile's striking range was considerably shorter than that of other snakes. Unfortunately, if Anson's calculations were correct, he was very close to being within the ten inches, which should be the outside limit of the snake's ability to lunge.
Everything he'd ever learned about venomous reptiles filed through his head and the information wasn't heartening. If he were bitten, he'd have an extremely slim chance of getting help before he collapsed. Anson could practically see his brother, Stryder, shaking his head and hear him saying, "And you thought freezing your ass off in Russia was bad. Bro, I hate to break it to you, but chilly balls are better than the burning agony of a snake bite."
I'm not about to die in some fucking jungle in the middle of Argentina. Now shut the hell up. I'm trying to think here. Sometimes Anson wished he didn't have a mind that tended to retain every trivial fact he'd ever read. Ignorance had to be bliss because he knew that the actual bite was the least of his worries. It would only hurt for a short time before he'd begin to experience difficulty breathing. Massive tissue destruction would follow, and his gut would begin to fill as he bled internally. Look, buddy, I don't have any beef with you. I'm just passing through. How about we live and let live?
His eyes never left the elliptical ones of the fer-de-lance and despite the suggestion he'd just offered, the moment he knew his offer would be ignored, he jerked his arm to cover his face, feeling the impact of the snake before he saw the body wrapping around his forearm.
Using his other hand, Anson grabbed the snake behind its triangular shaped head. "Fuck, you're a determined little
bastard aren't you?" He could actually see the reptile's jaws working to pump venom into its prey. Fortunately, that victim was the leather scabbard strapped to Anson's forearm, the thickness keeping the fangs from penetrating any vital part of his anatomy. Applying pressure, Anson forced the snake's jaws to open wider and pulled him off his arm. The greenish-gold body, striped with narrow bands of lighter yellow continued to whip around as Anson carried him back in the direction he'd come. Stooping, he held the snake up.
"Unlike you, I'm willing to extend a friendly hand. However, you do so much as take even a single glance back, and I promise, just like Lot's wife, you'll die.
Comprende?" Not willing to see if the snake understood his reference to the Bible story where, despite God's instructions not to look back as she and her husband fled Sodom, Lot's wife did and turned into a pillar of salt, Anson threw the snake several yards into the jungle. Wiping his hands on his pants, he shook his head. Glistening drops of some of the deadliest poison in the world dripped down his arm. Removing the scabbard, he swiped it against the ground, wiping the venom off into the undergrowth before rising.
He didn't bother to drop to his stomach. What he'd thought might be the shuffle of boots through the brush, causing him to drop from his standing position, had obviously been the snake slithering through the undergrowth. He was still at least a mile from the compound. If walking in normal conditions, he'd have easily covered the distance in under twelve minutes. But nothing about his present course was normal. It would take him closer to an hour to arrive at his destination.
Setting off, his eyes sweeping back and forth as well as up and down, as snakes were known to drop from trees onto unsuspecting hikers, he chuckled. He remembered warning Stryder not to go "Rambo" on their last mission and yet here he was, practically a body double for the man...
well, if you discounted the blond hair and blue eyes. Despite the heat, he wore camo fatigues, the cotton and polyester blend necessary to survive shoving through dense foliage but not allowing very much ventilation. Combat boots he hadn't worn since he'd been in the Air Force were laced up his shins. What part of his skin that wasn't concealed by his clothing, was covered in paint that helped him blend in with his surroundings. He had walked for a half hour before he reached over his shoulder and pulled the straw connected to the CamelBak into his mouth, sucking hard, grimacing a bit. No matter how thoroughly he cleaned the pack after each use, there was always an unpleasant taste of plastic to the liquid. Still, the three liters it held guaranteed that he'd stay hydrated and not have to rely on finding any source of water for at least a few hours.
As he moved through the thick tangle of vegetation, he occupied his mind by recalling the details of the compound he'd managed to obtain. Though Juan Montez was one of the richest men in South America and could live wherever he wanted, his very choice of occupation required he live in a fucking fortress. And, evidently, the drug
czar had decided to make it the most impenetrable compound of all. Anson couldn't really fault him for that, since he was sure the bastard had witnessed or been told of many competitors who hadn't taken such steps with their safety... men who no longer existed, taken out by their enemies. Hell, Montez was probably responsible for the deaths of at least a few.
Unlike the law that had finally seen some justice with the cartels that had held Colombia hostage, any government presence was a total joke this far south. That was only one small part of why Anson was on his own. A solo target was a lot harder to track than many. Even though he knew the rest of the Black Stallion team-his father and two brothers-wouldn't hesitate to call in every
marker they had in order to execute a full-on assault of the complex, he wasn't about to take the chance that Natalia would be hurt or killed in the crossfire. This had been his mission from the moment he'd laid eyes on Natalia. So, for now, he'd do his reconnaissance, gather the data that he needed and then melt back into the jungle. It killed him to wait but he knew doing so gave the woman the best chance of leaving Argentina alive.
The sun had dipped below the treetops by the time he stopped. After checking the surrounding area very carefully, he dropped to once again
lie on his stomach. Reaching behind him, he pulled a pair of goggles from the compartment beneath the water pouch. With the sun's disappearance, he didn't have to worry about any rays catching the lens of his goggles, causing a flash of light which would announce his presence as surely as if he stood in a spotlight. He scanned the compound, mentally counting guards, noticing exits, buildings, vehicles. The place was literally crawling with men, though they didn't look particularly attentive. Several were smoking as they leisurely patrolled the grounds, while he could see a few men talking in a group. Still, it wouldn't take but a moment to draw the rifles that hung from their shoulders into position if danger was sensed.
Anson was practically motionless, the only thing moving was his head as he slowly swiveled it, his eyes pressed to the eyepieces of the goggles. With the last of the sun gone, he flipped a switch to activate the night vision capabilities. The landscape instantly bloomed into various hues of green. Nightfall did not cause any additional vigilance. Perhaps Montez's health was failing faster than Anson had been informed. A dying czar didn't draw the fierce loyalty or attention of his men. However, once the son of a bitch took up residence in hell, where he belonged, Anson had no doubt that every man in view would be hyper alert and fighting for their place in whatever new hierarchy would swoop in to take over Montez's enterprises. His view was partially blocked so he stowed the goggles and slowly moved to change positions. Looking up, he shook his head.
Why couldn't he be dressed in a designer tux, stepping out of some insanely equipped car before a swanky casino? He could easily see himself sauntering up to the bar to order his medium dry martini with a slice of lemon peel and, of course, it would be shaken, not stirred. He'd catch the eye of
some gorgeous woman who would have a ridiculous name dripping with sexual innuendo. Nope, not him. He wasn't about to wrap his arms around the waist of some blonde named Ivanna Screw. Instead, he was working his way up some fucking tree, hand over hand, until he could settle on a branch. Forget Rambo, he'd left him behind and was now playing Tarzan.
Movement caught his eye and refocused his attention. A door opened and he forgot all about Bond's women as he caught sight of the woman who had haunted him for the past several months. Natalia Alvarez filled the lenses of the glasses. Anson was incredibly grateful to see her alive and well, and yet in an instant, felt a surge of hatred fill him as another person followed her out the door.
What the fuck was he doing outside? For a man on his deathbed, he hadn't lost a single ounce. There was no mistaking the man. His obesity dwarfed Natalia's smaller frame and when his hand clamped on her arm, tugging her towards one of the lounge chairs that sat around the pool, it was all Anson could do to not snarl for Montez to get his fucking paws off her. When the man collapsed into the chair, Anson could see it bend and practically hear it groaning in protest. But when thick fingers reached to tug the sash around Natalia's waist, hands pulling the loosened fabric of her robe open to reveal that she wore nothing more than a tiny bikini beneath, it was all Anson could do to remain motionless. Every cell in his body urged him to leap from the tree, scale the wall and pound the man into oblivion. As a hand that dealt in drugs, causing the death of so many, reached out to slap Natalia's ass, Anson saw red instead of green.
He watched as Natalia walked to the end of the pool. She hadn't cried out, hadn't pushed Montez's hand away and yet Anson had seen the slump of her shoulders before she'd lifted her arms above her head to execute a perfect dive into the water. He followed every stroke of her arms, impressed that she never lifted her head to breathe as she swam the entire length of the pool. She flipped over, took a breath and retraced her path. Again and again, lap after lap, she swam while Montez watched. Well, he watched until he was joined by another man, the two now sitting
on adjoining lounges, discussing God knew what. A servant brought out a tray of drinks, which the men enjoyed after snipping the ends off cigars that were soon brighter spots of green in Anson's goggles as the men smoked. Unable to hear what they were saying, just seeing they were totally relaxed, told Anson something vital. They didn't appear the least bit worried that any danger threatened. That was good as far as Anson was concerned. He'd much prefer the man be blindsided when he found his life turned upside down.
He watched Natalia swim until she finally stopped, her arms folded on the edge of the pool as she caught her breath. When her head lifted and turned towards the wall, Anson's breath caught in his throat. Did she see him or was she just envisioning the freedom that had been denied her? When she turned away, Anson moved his goggles to see that Montez was beckoning for her to come. Anson gritted his teeth and watched as the young woman used her hands to push herself up until she could climb from the pool. Raking his gaze down her frame, Anson tried to ascertain whether she showed any type of injury, though he knew short of a broken bone or abnormal swelling, the goggles precluded any real inspection. Still, she was walking steadily, though slowly, towards the man who had purchased her at the slave auction in Russia a few months earlier.
Hatred ran through Anson Steele and he could swear his blood was boiling as he watched Montez run his hands over Natalia's sleek body. He palmed her breasts and then her ass, as if making sure his companion knew that this beautiful woman belonged to him. After Montez gave a final slap to her butt that caused Natalia to stumble, Anson watched as she picked up her robe and slipped it on before disappearing back inside the house.
"Hold on, I swear I'm coming for you. Just stay strong a little bit longer," Anson encouraged Natalia silently. He watched the compound until Montez and his guest retreated inside. Only then did he climb from the tree and begin the long hike back towards the river. He didn't care about the distance, knowing it would give him time to shove down the emotions threatening to consume him. By the time he reached the river, he'd be ready to call home and give his account to his father, who had been doing some research of his own.
The moon was out, though it provided very little illumination as he finally reached the spot where he'd camp for the evening. Camp was a generous term, as there were no large domed tents like the ones he and his brothers would raise when they'd go up into the Chisos Mountains for a weekend of camping, fishing, and hiking. There was no large circle of stones containing a roaring bonfire. No camp chairs offered a weary man a place to sit and not a single pan was in view, its contents ready to fill a hungry man's belly. In fact, there was nothing at all.
Shrugging off his pack, he opened the compartment and pulled out his poncho. After checking the area, he chose a low hanging set of branches and improvised a small shelter that would at least give him a bit of protection. The only source of light was the beam from the small flashlight Anson aimed at the interior of his pack. Within a few minutes, he had his dinner cooking.entrée, found in the MRE-or Meal Ready to Eat-he'd opened, promised him a taste of Texas. Anson wasn't gullible enough to believe that the barbequed pork patty would taste like anything he'd enjoyed at The Flying Pig back in his country, even though he did have a packet of BBQ sauce to pour over the meat when it finished steaming in its handy dandy disposable oven. As he waited the recommended fifteen minutes to allow the chemically activated heating pouch to cook his meal, he munched on crackers he'd spread with peanut butter. Each MRE contained several packets of food as well as a spoon, gum, some sort of powdered drink, a condiment or two, and a small packet of tissues that soldiers had learned was better kept to be used to wipe your ass than to waste on wiping your fingers. Toilet paper that didn't feel like sandpaper was something that men far from home quickly found to be a luxury.
He used some of his water to turnbeverage of choice into a liquid, though the orange drink tasted nothing like the freshly squeezed juice that Jennie, the housekeeper and surrogate mother at the Black Stallion Ranch, made every morning. Anson chuckled as he opened the heated meal and dipped his spoon inside and took his first bite. Christ! He'd almost rather eat a big bowl of Jennie's hippie, tofu laden meatloaf than the "pork patty," but knowing he'd expended a lot of calories and would continue to do so, he ate every single bite. At least this MRE offered a pouch of peaches and a slice of pound cake that helped clear his palate of the pork and actually tasted good. With his meal completed, he stowed his trash back in the pack after sealing it in a plastic bag. Though he could crawl outside and bury it, he'd not leave a single trace of his existence behind. He was a firm believer in the adage, "take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints" whenever he was out in nature. Checking the time, he pulled out the most vital piece of equipment, punched in the numbers to encrypt the call and waited for someone to answer.
"Buena tarde, cómo lo llevas, hermano?"
"Hanging good," Anson said, the pleasure of hearing a familiar voice easing some of the tension he'd carried all day. He could easily picture Stryder, his younger brother by a year, sitting in the operations center at home. In fact, as the picture popped into his head, he added, "And get your feet off the table before you break something. You know how sensitive that equipment is."
A deep chuckle came over the line. "Jeez, don't get your panties in a wad, bro, everything is cool here. How are you doing, Anson?"
"I'm good, tired but good," Anson said. "I saw her. I saw Natalia."
"Seriously? That's fantastic. Zoya will be so happy to hear that..." Stryder paused and then asked, "I mean, it is good, right?"
"Yeah, she looked good," Anson said and proceeded to tell his brother how he'd watched the woman swimming. "It appears that just like Mark Twain, the news of Montez's impending death has been greatly exaggerated. The man is alive and kicking." He admitted that his first reaction at seeing Montez touch Natalia was the desire to charge into the compound and drown him in his own fucking pool.
"I can't blame you, but fat floats. As obese as Montez is, I'm afraid he'd just bob around like some obscene pool toy," Stryder said with a chuckle.
Anson knew Stryder understood his
feelings but was trying to relieve the anger he could obviously hear in his brother's voice. They'd been on several missions together as part of the Black Stallion team. Their latest mission had been in Russia, where the two had taken on the role of men interested in buying a sex slave-all in the name of gathering information to take down a notorious criminal by the name of Vasily Poplov. That mission had brought Zoya into their lives and into Stryder's arms. They had a small wedding before Anson had left for Argentina and were expecting the birth of their first child. That was another reason why Anson had refused his brother's offer to come with him to Argentina.
"Yeah, but I won't leave Argentina until the man is six feet under...
well, it might take a deeper hole to stuff him into."
They both chuckled at the visual and then Stryder informed him that their father was waiting to talk to him. "Before I pass Pops the phone, keep safe, bro. You need us...
any of us, and we are there."
"I know, thanks."
The next voice Anson heard was his father's. "Hey, son. You good?"
"Yeah, Pops." He spent the next few minutes sharing every scrap of information he'd gleaned from his reconnaissance, ending with, "Montez is alive and well. I just saw him enjoying drinks and a cigar by the pool. Someone either got their facts wrong or they are purposefully attempting to send us down the wrong path."
"Can't say, but I have discovered that there might be a better opportunity to get to him other than at his compound. There is a fiesta being planned in honor of his sixtieth birthday this weekend. If the guest list includes some of the names we've researched, I guarantee there is a very good chance that he'd not attend without Natalia on his arm.
Montez won't be able to resist showing her off."
Anson wasn't aware he'd growled until his father said, "Son, you can't allow your emotions to get the better of you-"
"Don't you think I fucking know that?" Anson snapped before he got himself under control. He couldn't deny the irony of his father's words. In Russia, Anson had practically said the same words to Stryder. "Sorry, Pops, it's just..."
Drake was silent for a few moments before evidently understanding that his son had nothing else to add that wouldn't be a lie. "I know, Anson. Believe me, we all know how you feel. But you'll need to keep it together if you have any chance of getting Natalia out of Argentina. We are continuing to monitor every channel and put feelers out to everyone who can help, but I'm sure you know you are smack dab in the middle of one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Drop your guard and someone is likely to slit your throat without pause or bothering to ask questions first."
"I hear you," Anson said, steeling himself to focus on his mission.
"All right. As I was saying, the party is to be held at the Alvear Palace Hotel. Guests will be bringing their own guards, so be prepared for a small army. But it still gives you a better chance to crash the party. We'll get you whatever information we can before you go
in. You might think about changing your looks a bit as well. I imagine there aren't that many blond-haired, blue eyed gringos walking around the streets."
Anson smiled. "Check your history, Pops. Germans began emigrating to Argentina in the early part of the nineteenth century. Then, when Juan Perón became president in 1943, he was a huge Nazi sympathizer. After Germany lost the war, more people flocked to join their ancestors. I assure you that I'm not anywhere near the anomaly as you'd think. Oh, and if that doesn't convince you, pull up Shakira on YouTube. She was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, and is not only an extremely talented singer, she is about as
blonde and pale as I am."
"Jesus, it still amazes me how you just seem to know all this random shit-"
"Research, of course," Anson cut in and heard his father chuckle.
"Yeah, if you'd stopped at the German info, maybe. Throwing that bit in about some hot Latin woman was a little over the top." Drake paused and then added, "I still say I should come down there-"
"No, at least, not yet," Anson countered. "With Poplov making sure that every bidder at that auction knows we are after them, I have a better chance solo."
"That's fine, but at the first sign of trouble, you swear to me, you'll call."
"I will, Pops. Thanks for the information. I'll work my way back into the city and develop a plan."
"My turn to show off my brain. Rumor has it that Montez is a huge fan of the rodeo. Every, they hold the Feria de Mataderos on the outskirts of the city. During the
week it's a quiet residential section, but the population explodes on Sundays. There is a rodeo, races, and horsemanship demonstrations. The rodeo might give you the perfect opportunity to get closer without standing out quite as much. The only thing we Steeles know more about than bad men are horses."
"That might just work," Anson said.
"Well, if it doesn't, you'll get a chance to thank Jennie for insisting all you boys take those dance classes. At night there are dancing demonstrations and contests," Drake said with a chuckle.
"You're a funny man, Pops."
"I have every faith you'll do whatever is necessary," Drake said, his voice turning deadly serious. "Stay safe, son. I love you."
Anson closed his eyes for a moment; the love he felt for this man was so strong, it pulled at him. "I will, Pops. Talk to you soon."
Once he'd shut off the phone, he crawled from beneath the poncho and walked into the trees to empty his bladder. He watched as something flew from a nearby tree. "Fuck, even the bats are blood suckers," he mumbled, recognizing the species as
desmodontinae or, for fans of horror movies, the vampire bat. Zipping up, he returned to his camp. He knew that he needed to change his socks. Sleeping in wet socks was a sure way to get trench foot. Not wishing to watch his feet rot, he removed his boots. After peeling down his socks, he rolled each one over a boot, effectively blocking the opening to ensure that he wouldn't find a spider had crawled inside during the night. Half the species of spiders in this country were just as venomous as the snake he'd encountered earlier. Using a wet wipe, he cleaned his feet, allowed them to air dry, and pulled on a fresh pair of socks. His toilette complete, he stretched out on the ground, his pack becoming his pillow. With an arm flung over his forehead, he stared up at the top of the makeshift tent. The only sounds were the rustling of leaves as nocturnal animals scurried to and fro, looking for their dinner.
Anson found himself wondering if Natalia was yet asleep, but that thought had his blood pressure rising as he instantly considered her most likely bed partner. Forcing his thoughts away from things better left alone, he ran mathematical equations in his head for a while to calm himself. Closing his eyes, he could see the maps he'd studied before he ever stepped foot in South America appear. As his inner eye traveled across roads, forded rivers, and climbed mountains, he knew that, while he didn't know exactly how he planned to get Natalia out, he'd not leave unless she was by his side.